“I am bound to get in if I climb up the roof and go down the chimney.”

Lavinia Goodell, June 8, 1874

During the first two weeks of June 1874, Lavinia Goodell’s mind was consumed with plans to take the bar examination so that she could be admitted to practice law in Wisconsin. It was not clear until an hour prior to the examination on June 17 whether she would actually be allowed to sit for it. In a June 8 letter to her cousin Sarah Thomas, Lavinia wrote:

Have passed through some mental excitement since I wrote you last. I write you in my last letter Tuesday that I had made an attempt to have an application made for my admittance, but the man from whom I expected aid failed me. Wednesday morning when I went downtown, I was informed that the reason was because some of the lawyers, who were on intimate terms with the judge, had told him that the judge had intended to refuse me, on account of my sex, so he thought he would wait and consult me, as perhaps I would prefer to back out, and so avoid the “mitten.” (To “get the mitten” was to be rejected.)

I was very much stirred up by this piece of news and informed him that I would be admitted to the bar of Wisconsin, if I lived a few years longer, and that if Judge Conger refused me I would make him sorry for it before I had done with him, together with some other plucky and strong minded remarks, indicative of an intensely martial state of mind.

Lavinia continued:

I first thought I would apply at once, and get refused, and then make a row about it, but on further reflection, concluded to proceed more cautiously, as a refusal here might damage my prospects elsewhere. So agreed to interview the judge privately and find out what he intended to do, and in meantime would study up the point and hunt up precedent.

Although she was very frustrated with the situation, Lavinia was determined to press on.

Saturday went to the law office again and was informed that the judge was not clear on the subject, should have to study it up, but his “impression” was that he could not admit me! However he was intending to examine a couple of young men from Beloit, within a few weeks, and if I had a mind to come in and be examined with them I might! Very kind! I shall do so, and shall study up in the meantime and come down on him with what thunder I can command.

If he refuses me, I shall try all the other courts in the State, and if I cannot get admitted shall have a bill introduced into the next Legislature and make a fuss generally till I get in.

I am bound to get in, if I “climb up the roof and go down the chimney.” So you see there is prospect of a lively time ahead. Perhaps it will be best if I have to make a fuss – it will advertise me.

Sources consulted: Life of Lavinia Goodell, unpublished biography by Maria Goodell Frost, part of William Goodell Family Papers housed at Berea College Special Collections & Archives, Berea College, Berea, Kentucky.

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